A funny thing happened to me a couple months ago. It was a Sunday night, the kids were running around getting their last bits of energy out before bedtime (which usually consists of wrestling me to the floor and trying to assert dominance over their father), and there was a knock at the door. My wife answered, and there was a young man of 20 standing there, looking distraught, holding a fat and well-worn study Bible in his hand. I had never seen him before in my life, nor he me.
The black-belt Detroiter in me quickly sized up the situation and determined that there was no threat, just a troubled kid. He wasn’t strung out or dangerous looking, so I invited him in. I took him through the house to my study at church, and there started listening to him. His presence at my door on a random Sunday night surprised me, but the reason for his appearance was entirely unsurprising.
He had a hard time at first explaining what the problem was, but he assented to my summary back to him, which I relay to you: it was a struggle to understand the cost of discipleship vis-à-vis the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. On the one hand, we are saved by grace through faith. On the other, Christians are expected to live a certain way, and Jesus has several bold proclamations regarding discipleship, including hating your mother and father, picking up your cross, selling everything you have, etc … So which is it? Are we saved by our level of discipleship, or by grace? And if the latter, where is the line of self-denial and anti-worldliness? Where is peace to be found if I must keep climbing the ladder?
Trying to get to the source of his frustration, I learned that he was interning at a non-denominational church to be a leader of some sort. However, like many evangelical denominations, they were accidentally turning faith into a work. All that talk about giving your heart to Jesus was weighing on his faith in grace. He was tortured by his discipleship, panicky over following Jesus’ strict demands. He was in many ways like Luther, painstakingly recovering each sin to confess in the fearful trappings of works righteousness.
It wasn’t surprising to me because I was there once upon a time. I was the heart-giving Bible-thumper who could quote myriad verses but had no clue how to see the forest for the trees. It also wasn’t surprising to me how, after much conversation and questions, the gift of absolution drew this young man to tears. The simple proclamation that Christ forgives you will do that.
Since he lived about 40 miles away, I asked him, “How did you find me?” He responded, “I just got in the car and drove. I prayed that God would send me someone to talk to. Then I googled LCMS church and the GPS took me here.” Still perplexed, I said, “Well, God clearly answered that prayer, but why a Lutheran Church?”
(Wait for it …)
“Because I went to a Lutheran high school and remembered how knowledgeable they were.”
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).
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